Consumption should be the new smoking

Am I being facetious?

I’m writing this as an expert at giving up smoking. I’ve done it many times. I know how to avoid smoking that one cigarette that will kick-start my habit. I can just as easily light it up while convincing myself that the amount I smoke isn’t really a problem. But when I listen to that voice of addiction in my head, reassuring me that I’ll be calmer, happier, more relaxed after I smoke, I fall straight into that spiral of having my days and thoughts dictated by when and where I can manage to have a ciggie. I sympathise fully with smokers. But I also get why we’re social pariahs – it’s smelly, dirty and costs our health systems a fortune.

Alan Carr’s aptly named book, Stop Smoking, was my bible for a few years. It’s his messages that go round in my head when I manage to avoid taking that first cigarette.  In his conclusion, he deplores the hypocrisy of social attitudes to addiction. “As a society we get uptight about glue sniffing and heroin addiction. Compared with cigarette smoking, these problems are mere pimples in our society.”

I’ve been asking myself recently why we get so worked up about smoking while continuing to destroy the lungs of the planet. Our concern with smoking seems highly exaggerated in the face of the pollution emitted by our high-consumption lifestyles. It’s inconsistent and illogical that I am not allowed to sit and smoke outside at a restaurant in Australia when people are free to drive past me in their outsized SUVs to pick up some milk, or fly to Bali for their annual holiday.

Let’s start viewing consumption from our anti-smoking lens. Obviously smoking is bad for me, and those around me; those SUVs are also bad for me, and those around me. Our over-consumption is a dirty, smelly, expensive habit that is killing the environment we need to survive. We’ve known this for roughly 40 years and yet we continue to ramp up our consumption. Which means either we are really stupid or we are addicted. Either way, let’s frame it as a problem and throw at it everything we can to reduce it.

Am I being facetious? About the addiction, no. Governments and the fossil fuel industry have known about the impact on the climate of burning fossil fuels for decades. But in the pursuit of their profits, we have been manipulated into consuming at a level far beyond our interests, and those of our kids. Governments implore us to consume to prop up our growth-based economic model. Shopping therapy is bandied around as a quick fix for life’s low moments. Ever-sophisticated marketing techniques, developed to trigger certain psychological responses, and the omnipresent social media and its influencers peddle new products and trends at an ever-increasing rate that we are told will make us happier, more efficient, more intelligent, more-fulfilled – simply more and more. But the fact that we go out and buy the next big thing shows how we are being manipulated. Just as smoking that cigarette doesn’t make me more relaxed or less stressed, so buying that shiny new thing doesn’t make me any happier. In both cases I’m just feeding an addiction. The only difference is that we are told that consumption is actually good for us.

We banished the Marlboro Man from our screens because he was manipulating us into smoking. So let’s banish those over-consuming stars, bros and influencers peddling their lifestyles and goods to fund their private jets and stuff and more stuff, whose footprint will be paid for by our kids. Let’s stop talking about shopping therapy as something helpful and start stigmatising our shopping addiction – that vacuous reflex of buying stuff that distracts us like a flashy bauble distracts an infant. Let’s stick a picture of dried-up rivers in south-west USA on the side of that fancy new SUV. Let’s require all online purchases to be delivered in packaging that show pictures of glaciers 20 years ago and now. And let’s slap taxes on luxury goods that actually reflect the emissions and mitigation costs of the whole production process – from raw material through to the end of the product’s life. That might deter some of our over consumption, just as higher taxes have deterred smokers.

Mirroring the messaging on a packet of cigarettes

OK, some of these suggestions are moot, because there’s no way industries will allow governments to do this – particularly as we seem hesitant to vote for political parties and policies that favour a healthy environment for our children. However, just playing with such ideas can change how we frame our role as consumers. Will we continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated for company profit when it goes against the interests of those we love?

Framing consumption as an addiction doesn’t mean we have to completely stop consuming. In his fascinating book, The Day the World Stops Shopping, J. B. Mackinnon explores the repercussions of a 25% reduction in consumption on individuals, societies and global economics. He concludes that while a starting goal of a 5% reduction would hardly be felt, it would lead us towards the mindset required to make deeper reductions – towards a willingness and curiosity to rethink how our society and economy is structured, and how and why we consume ever bigger and ever more. He is hopeful that we can address our shopping addiction by understanding the benefits of lower consumption. “The evidence suggests that life in a lower-consuming society really can be better, with less stress less work or more meaningful work, and more time for the people and things that matter most.”

One of my sadder experiences was finding, after his death, the AA bible in the bedside drawer of someone I loved very dearly, who had been unable to sustain his sobriety. It struck me as such a terrible tragedy: although he never managed it, overcoming his addiction had remained his private, most deep-seated desire until the very end. How awfully sad for the young people in our lives if we are not able to recognise, address and overcome our addiction to our current level of consumption, a level that is destroying their future.

So how do we start to reframe our consumption levels as a damaging addiction?

We could wait for eternity for governments and corporations to slap those warnings on their products. Or we can take responsibility for our own individual consumption patterns and vote for them to finally do something.

Start close to home, by realizing the effect our consumption is having on our kids’ future. The sorry of the climate apology can be the message going round in our heads before buying that next thing, reminding us that the young people in our lives are going to have to clean up after us.

StopStop before I buy or consume. Take a moment to think about whether it’s really necessary to leave that CO2 footprint for my kids to deal with.
OpportunityReducing my consumption is an opportunity to address the current crisis, and to step into my role as an elder and role model by curtailing my excessive lifestyle in the interest of my young people’s future.
ReflectThink about how, why and what I consume. What difference will this particular act of consumption make to my life? Can that be achieved in another way? What would happen if I didn’t buy / use / do it?
RecogniseRecognise that I am not freely choosing what I consume but have been and am constantly being manipulated to consume for profit margins. Recognise what it is that appeals to me when I consume unnecessarily. Can I meet this need in another way?
You and yoursAddressing my consumption patterns is important for the future of the young people in my life.

Not everyone will be able or willing to overcome their addiction. And it won’t be linear. But if enough of us are willing to make a start, then we can make a significant difference.

Together, we’ve got this.

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Alan Carr, Easy Way to Stop Smoking, Penguin Books, 1985, p.141

J.B. Mackinnnon, The Day the World Stops Shopping, Penguin Random House UK (The Bodley Head), 2021. p. 292

One thought on “Consumption should be the new smoking

  1. We all have to start somewhere, and this is an excellent example. But with regard to the argument that repackaging our shiny new purchases with dire images is moot because industries would never allow governments to pass the necessary legislation, remember the new packaging legislation passed in Australia for all tobacco products: plain, murky olive green, and designed to be completely unappealing. Did it work? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest yes, coupled, of course, with incredibly high taxes. Anything can be done if we insist it be done and if we, as individuals, demonstrate a willingness to change and kick our habits.

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